HOSTAS ARE SO FAMILIAR, you probably think as I did that you know plenty about them. Yet in a conversation with Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina and a longtime hosta breeder, it was one hosta “aha” after another.
Ever wonder, for instance, why some blue hostas turn dull by high summer, or certain yellow and variegated varieties fade worse than others? Or did you know that ‘Halcyon’ (a blue hosta) has produced all the “sports” or mutations above, and more? In a story and a podcast, get to know our most beloved shade-garden standby more intimately than ever before.
I suppose I already knew that there are more than 6,000 named hosta varieties, though perhaps merely 500 are truly garden-worthy, says Tony, whose standard is what he calls “The 10-Foot Test.” Meaning:
“If you can’t tell it from 10 feet away without a label, throw it out,” he says unflinchingly–classic Tony. “You don’t need to be introducing more plants that look like every other plant.”
He speaks from experience in composting more than your average number of plants, many hostas among them. In 2013, it was the 25th anniversary of Plant Delights Nursery—and Tony’s 29th year in the hosta-breeding business (he’s been at it since 1984).
The 1980s were the hosta’s “real heyday,” he recalls, and a few plants from that era have withstood the test of time—varieties such as blue-leaved ‘Halcyon,’ for instance, or ‘Sun Power.’ But mostly, not so much.
“You look back at the hostas you developed that long ago, and those of course those would go in the trash today,” says Tony. “We’ve really come so far.”
Over roughly the same period, the advent of tissue culture—micro-propagation techniques performed in the lab—“has brought new varieties out of the collector’s market into the masses,” he says. With tissue culture, “you can go from one plant to maybe 10,000 in a year.” It has sliced the prices of new hosta introductions from a few hundred dollars or more, to just $25 or $35.
Great new for gardeners, but not necessarily for breeders’ economics—and Tony’s once-10,000-square-foot hosta production area is now closer to 4,000. The other factor affecting a somewhat-smaller focus on the genus: the growing deer population everywhere. Tony calls those insidiously hosta-ivorous four-legged opponents “wood goats,” with appropriate disdain. (A showcase of other perennials that do show deer resistance is on his website.)
From our conversation, a few of my recent hosta “aha’s” are called out below, but be sure to listen in to the whole podcast for more using the player just below. The “more” includes why Tony has named his otherwise-elegant hosta introductions things like ‘Elvis Lives’ and ‘Out House Delight’ or ‘Bubba’ and ‘Red Neck Heaven’—among other fun Avent-style facts.
my 6 hosta ‘aha’s,’ thanks to tony avent
1. That big—and most of all big and blue—is what sells more than any other physical attributes. (I’m crazy about yellow myself; as ever, I’m sadly out of step with the market.)
“Our focus in breeding has always been on having things that look unique—but now that doesn’t always mean they’re as commercial,” says Tony. What’s commercial: “Big blue hostas.”
“That’s where the money is,” says Tony (who in classic Avent style is therefore particularly excited about small hostas). Since the 1980s big blue has been the thing, he says, “and will be for the foreseeable future. The biggest-selling hosta today is ‘Empress Wu,’ which is about 4 feet tall and 7 feet across—it’s enormous,” explains Tony, adding that it’s not even a great hosta beyond its impressive size. “Big is a very big deal. So since big is a big deal, we’re breeding miniatures.”
2. That small leaf size and overall stature in hostas comes mostly from just one species.
Hosta venusta, which appears in nature only on a volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea, is the source of this trait; most of the miniatures (such as the sport called ‘Kinbotan’) have venusta in their background.
3. That there’s an explanation behind why that the leaves of some varieties fade more quickly in summer than others from vivid to dull, or otherwise as the season progresses—something I always lament, but never understood the mechanism of.
With blue hostas, a waxy coating on the leaves is what causes the light to be reflected in such a way that they look that glaucous blue, Tony explains—“and we all know what happens to wax after many days in the 90s; the wax melts off. And if you have a lot of rains in the summer, the rains can wash the wax off.
“The warmer climate you move into, the blues just don’t hold up. So it’s the amount of wax—and that’s why I like things like ‘Touch of Class’ (above photo) because the wax holds up much longer; it has a double layer of wax.”
So which blues besides that one perform best against the elements?
“All those hostas are either lutescent or viridescent,” he says, referring to the inherent genetic characteristics that govern leaf fading.
“Lutescent ones come out maybe green and go to yellow, or come out yellow and they go to white,” he explains, “and viridescent ones come out bright and fade to green. So you have to know which one you’re getting—since almost all gold, white or variegated hostas are one or the other, and don’t stay the same color as they age.”
3. That Hosta plantaginea (below)–from whose genetics breeders get fragrance—is even more distinctive that I realized, beyond that sweet smell emanating from its large white flowers.
Any hosta variety that has fragrance has Hosta plantaginea in its background, Tony explains (all the fragrant varieties he offers are here). And plantaginea also has good vigor and more sun-tolerance–more than other hostas.
Another distinction: plantaginea generally will flower later in the season–even August, when those big, white perfumed blooms are especially welcome. But there’s a downside:
“As a breeding plant it’s really tough, because all hostas expect that one bloom at 7 in the morning,” says Tony. “That one opens at 5 PM. It’s the white-sheep of the hosta family–you sort of have to trick it to get it to have sex with the others.”
But trick it he does, and at Plant Delights, he is creating a whole new series of fragrant hostas as a result.
5. That when Southern gardeners go in search of “heat-tolerant hostas,” it’s actually hostas with “low chill requirements,” a.k.a., not much need for a wintertime, they’re after.
“It’s the amount of cold they get in winter that matters,” says Tony. “As we move into the South, we look at hostas that have a very low winter-chill requirement.”
How to tell? You can go out in the garden and look for the ones that pop up earliest, as soon as any hint of spring warmth comes on. Those are the ones that need less chill.
Hosta plantaginea has no dormancy requirement, for instance, Tony says—the only hosta that has none–and can therefore grow all year round. Hosta venusta has a very low chill requirement. Another from Korea that has low chill requirement: Hosta nakaiana.
Breeders have used those species to create hostas for hot climates.
6. That some of the hostas I like best of all weren’t the result of a breeder’s deliberate hybridizing (that is, exchanging pollen between two plants with desirable traits), but were naturally occurring mutations, or sports (genetic variation within a species or variety).
Take the example some of the excellent offspring in the top photo of ‘Halcyon,’ the breakthrough blue-leaved hosta from the late 1980s, says Tony. From its sports have come such not-all-blue varieties such as ‘First Frost’ or ‘Blue Ivory’ or ‘June’ [Margaret’s favorite] and ‘Touch of Class,’ which Tony says is better still. “All of those are sports from the original.” Who knows what beauty will show up next?
more hosta fare from tony avent
- Shop all hostas at Plant Delights
- Hostas for warm climates (article by Tony Avent)
- Read all Tony’s articles on hostas (and other plants!)
- Visit Plant Delight during Open Days
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 3, 2013 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Hosta photos from Plant Delights, except H. plantaginea by Nova, via Wikimedia Commons.)